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A Brief History of Religious Freedom in America

Praying FriendsSome freedoms are taken for granted. In our time, we enjoy so many freedoms it is hard to distinguish between them in the course of our daily lives. We have the freedom to vote for candidates of any political party without fear of retribution. We have the freedom to send our children to public, private, or even home school.

We have the freedom to choose how much of an education to receive, no matter our age, ability, color, religion, or gender. We can speak out against our government, and write whatever we deem important. We can practice any religion we like, or choose not to practice one at all.

But what good is a freedom if we don’t exercise it?

The separation of church and state

These freedoms may all be free to us today, but they certainly weren’t cheap. High prices were paid for each of our freedoms. Most of us know that our political freedom from royal tyranny and unfair taxation was secured in the American Revolution.

Not by chance, but by design, our religious freedoms were secured in the process as well, making us the original religiously free place to live in the world. While James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were ultimately two of the strongest proponents of the separation of church and state, the groundwork may have been laid much earlier by Roger Williams, a preacher banished by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 — under threat of execution if he returned — for preaching a form of religious open-mindedness that simply could not be tolerated at the time.

The U.S. Constitution and freedom of religion

In the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which is also the very first part of the Bill of Rights, we are guaranteed freedoms of religion, speech, writing and publishing, and peaceful assembly, as well as the freedom to take up issues with our government. Thanks to some forceful arguing by James Madison in Virginia, religious freedom was first secured in the Virginia Statute, and would later pave the path for inclusion in the First Amendment to our Constitution. It reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Our forefathers decided not to make Christianity the religion of The United States

It was in the spring of 1778 that the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, resolving some religious issues. First, they decided that there would be no religious test for a person who was intent on holding a public office; second, they allowed Quakers and others to “affirm” their commitments rather than be sworn in; and third, they decided not to recognize Christianity as the official religion of the United States of America. By 1779, we had the law that defines our country’s relationship to religion that we still rely on today.

While these decisions did not guarantee religious freedoms, they went a long way — and are still going a long way today — toward setting the tone for religious freedoms that did not exist anywhere else in the world at the time.

So what is religious freedom and why should we care?

We have the freedom to practice faith individually or in groups, in public or private. We can change religious commitments freely for any reason and we have the right to practice no religion at all.

Later, the term for a person’s right not to practice religion, called “apostasy,” would be used by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to defend the personal choice not to practice religion anywhere in the world.

It appears people are making good use of religious freedom. According to an April 2009 Pew Forum study, Americans change religious affiliation “early and often,” and they estimate that half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once.

Sometimes people do surprising things with religious freedom, including inventing their own beliefs. Often called “new religious movements,” we have many, and not just the occasional cult we hear about in the news. Some new religious movements in the US include the Hindu methods of meditation taught in popular yoga classes, which have a spiritual basis. There’s even a new brand of “religion” called Dudeism.

Religious freedom and new religious movements

Currently, visualization and positive thinking groups are also considered to be new religious movements. And, while it may be hard to imagine, at one time Christianity itself was a new religious movement. Later, branches of Christianity, such as Protestantism, splintered further into denominations, which were also considered new religious movements at the time.

Why some new religious movements gain traction while others do not may depend not only on the core message of the newer movement, but also on events in the older institution. For example, if one religion has a scandal and a lot of subsequent decline in membership, perhaps the timing of another faith option opening up, which happens to be presently recruiting new members in the neighborhood, is just lucky.

Perhaps there is even math to support these trends, so that over time, it even becomes predictable that people of older established faith systems inevitably become dissatisfied or disgruntled enough that a percentage leaves and tries new ways of worship.

While most new religious movements operate openly in our communities where we can see them, and go and kick their religious tires if we like, cybersectarianism is a new kind of religious movement; “highly dispersed small groups of practitioners that may remain largely anonymous within the larger social context.”

The Jefferson Bible and other Bible versions

While revising the Bible itself may be a shocking and uncomfortable concept for many today, in 1804 Thomas Jefferson had absolutely no problem doing it. He used a sharp blade to cut out pages of Bibles in order to paste them together as he saw fit, literally constructing his own version of the Bible with side-by-side comparisons in Greek, Latin, French, and English.

Jefferson refused to believe that the Bible was correct in its then form, and was convinced that the four gospels were incorrect as written by the four “evangelists,” as he called them. He decided to exclude miracles, angels, or anything including Jesus’s resurrection, which defied science and was simply too hard to believe. Jefferson called his version of the Bible The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

Smithsonian Books acquired the rights to the Jefferson Bible in 1895 and has recently published a facsimile edition of it, so it is again available for purchase. Back in 1904, Congress enacted a policy by which every new senator received a copy of the Jefferson Bible, a practice that was in effect until the copies ran out in the 1950s.

In 2004, the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church, endorsed a fairly radical version of scripture that was edited by John Henson. This Bible is called Good As New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures. While plenty of debate ensued as to whether it was too liberally translated, it is claimed to be a less homophobic translation of scripture rather than a distortion. For many, the topic of sex, and certainly homosexual sex, is problematic in the Bible because they want a degree of confidence that their children won’t stumble upon controversial topics when they read the Bible. This edition did a fantastic job of wiping the topic of homosexual sex out of the Bible.

Surprisingly, plenty of other versions of the Bible exist, including a version for fast reading called The 100-Minute Bible, which was edited by the Reverend Michael Hinton, from Dover in Kent, England, who said his version could be read in less than two hours.

Another popular edition of the old Bible is The Message, by Eugene Paterson.

Much earlier, in 1521, while sequestered in a castle in Germany, Martin Luther decided to have his own go at editing the Bible. He almost deleted the books of Esther, Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, but decided instead to move Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation to the end and differentiated these from the other books. And he placed the Apocrypha in between the Old and New Testaments.

Exercising our religious freedoms in America

However taken for granted it may be, religious freedom is something we may need to be reminded of — of how much we have to be grateful for; whether it means we don’t need to make any changes to what we think or how we choose to practice, or whether it grants us the flexibility to decide to do something completely different in our faith from everyone else we know.

Once in a while, for the sake of the millions of people who have been put to death — for those burned at the stake; gassed in concentration camps; beheaded or tortured for their beliefs, or for not conforming to the beliefs of those with power around them — and in recognition of those around the world living under oppressive religious strictures we can hardly even imagine, we can get out and flex our religious muscles.

This year, maybe we can celebrate something religious, just because we can. And maybe we can celebrate something unreligious, just because we can. It sure feels good.

Do you think there should be even more separation between Church and State?
Yes, there should be even more separation
No, everything is fine as is
No, there should be even *less* separation

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